DUBLIN, Ohio – Tiger Woods might be learning how to win, but on Friday at Muirfield Village, he was the one doing the teaching.
Woods put on a ballstriking clinic for the masses at Jack’s Place, an impressive display of the iron-and-wedge variety that included a hole-out eagle and led to a 5-under 67 that has Woods back in contention through two rounds of the Memorial Tournament.
If only the putter was paying attention.
“I felt great over the golf ball, I really did,” Woods said. “I felt like I was going to hit the shots, had the start lines nice and tight, and I was shaping it back and forth either way. Didn’t really matter which way or what side of the green the flag was on, I could shape it in there.
“… I just hit terrible putts.”
Woods led the field in proximity to the hole at 19 feet, 4 inches. But he also missed five putts inside of 10 feet, including three from 3-5 feet. He opened his round with a three-putt bogey at the par-4 first, his par miss coming from 4 feet. After returning from a 1-hour, 28-minute delay because of lightning, Woods failed to convert birdies from 6 and 5 feet at Nos. 12 and 13, respectively. His last short miss, at the par-4 17th, came on a par putt from just 3 feet.
Woods ranked 119th out of 120 players in strokes gained: putting on Friday.
“I missed one on No. 1 and after that I missed everything,” Woods said. “Just didn’t putt well. I didn’t feel the putter head flowing, I didn’t feel it releasing. These are all normal things I normally feel, but I just didn’t quite have the feel for it.”
It was a shame, too, because Woods delivered one of his best ballstriking rounds during his latest comeback. He gave himself birdie looks from inside of 5 feet on Nos. 3, 5, 7 – all of which he converted – before capping his front nine with a 15-foot birdie make at the par-4 ninth.
He missed a 12-footer for birdie at the par-4 10th, but got that momentum back in a big way on the par-5 11th hole. He didn’t even need the putter this time.
Woods drove his ball into the right rough – a thick mix of Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue – and into a similar spot that he was in three days earlier, in Wednesday’s pro-am. Going for the green wasn’t an option, yet Woods knew he had to carefully choose his club.
In the pro-am, he went with 8-iron and his ball came out diving. It hit just shy of the crossing hazard before taking a lucky bounce over the creek. Woods decided this time to go with 6-iron, opening the face up and hitting what caddie Joe LaCava called an impressive layup to 97 yards.
“The lie wasn’t quite as bad as the pro-am,” Woods said, “but in the back of my mind I was like, yeah, just I’ll just go with 6-iron, I’ll open up the face and make sure I get it over the creek first.”
His next shot, though, generated more roars from the crowd. Woods took about 15 yards off his 56-degree wedge and landed the ball just a few feet past the hole. The ball dug in and spun back right into the cup. Just like that, Woods was 5 under.
Roars. And then a hole later, more roars, as Woods hit the flag – literally – from 164 yards out at the par-3 12th. His ball ended up 6 feet away and Woods was primed to make it and climb to within four shots of the lead.
“He was taking flagsticks out today,” said Woods’ playing competitor, Justin Rose. “It was fun to watch.”
But then the horn blew because of weather and Woods’ momentum was squandered. He missed that putt after the break and played even-par golf the rest of the way, his only birdie in that stretch coming on a 12-foot putt from the fringe at the par-5 15th.
“It’s weird to say, but this is my first delay this year coming back out of it,” Woods said. “And I was a little bit worried about how my back was going to feel.”
Woods paced for much of the pause in play. His back, which felt tight on Thursday, didn’t give him any issues a day later. No, just that frustrating flatstick, which ruined an otherwise brilliant display of golf.
“It could have been easily a nice little 62 or 63,” Woods said. “I turned it into a 67.”
Woods will now head into the weekend six shots back at an event he’s won five times. And if recent history is any indication, Woods is still very much in this tournament. He is averaging 68.57 in third rounds this season, easily his best of the four, and has played his last 29 holes in 9 under.
Woods, who will tee off Saturday at 11:20 a.m. Eastern alongside Patrick Reed, agrees: “I’ve got a great chance of winning this tournament.”